As school board election nears, Richmond youth organize their own candidate forum
on October 26, 2014
The smell of salad dressing and pasta hung in the air Thursday night as voices and laughter filled the basement of Living Hope Neighborhood Church. There, about 150 students, parents, residents, and community organization representatives joined in leading the last of West Contra Costa Unified school district’s (WCCUSD) school board candidates’ forums.
The forum was designed and run by students with the backing of six community organizations. Healthy Richmond, Youth Enrichment strategies (YES), The Latina Center, The Ryse Center, Youth Together, and Contra Costa Interfaith Sponsoring Community Organization (CISCO) supported the event with staffing, press management, and questions for the prospective school board members.
Bilingual education, youth and community engagement, the local control funding formula, school safety, and quality instruction were some of the topics that came up for discussion. Eight tables covered with candidate flyers and community initiative plans were arranged around the room. At each table sat a school board candidate awaiting questions.
Luis Mendoza, an 11th grader, asked one of the first questions. “I go to Richmond high school and there are not many windows around,” said Mendoza. “I would like the candidates to work on this so it doesn’t feel like a jail.”
To extend the discussion into social media, coordinators used the hashtags #RecognizeRealRichmond and #DotheMath. #RecognizeRealRichmond was created by Mergelia Perez, a junior at Richmond High School.
“What I thought of was how people should recognize the real Richmond,” Perez said, “not how people think about it, like the stereotype of how it’s just violence and criminals, and how the youth is just people that quit high school and give up. Richmond is changing and we are trying to get a better future for everybody–for the adults and for future generations.”
#DotheMath, created by The California Endowment, is part of a campaign focused on raising awareness of California’s current spending priorities.
One of the goals of the student-led roundtable was to make it more personal and youth friendly than a traditional debate. To achieve this the students came up with a novel format: almost like speed dating, the event was designed as a fast-moving discussion. Small groups of parents, students, and community members rotated from table to table, spending about five minutes with each candidate before moving to the next table.
During each round candidates had one minute to answer a question. Then they were allowed to talk about their own platform and take questions about it.
Each candidate also prepared and distributed written responses to questions beforehand, and circulated them at the event. Although school board candidates Madeline Kronenberg and Elaine Merriweather were not present at the event, their written responses were passed around.
Candidate Ayana Kirkland Young was particularly concerned about changes in community engagement. When asked about ideas to develop community engagement indicators her written response stated that community engagement is a “concerning issue” for her and could possibly “open doors to more corruption.”
“If the district gets more money based on who works with community groups,” said Young, “then we may have community groups spending money for ‘who’ they want to be on the school board just as these Charter School Groups, Construction Groups and Unions are doing right now for some of the current candidates.”
Healthy Richmond, a support team for the Richmond community, was particularly invested in community engagement. The organization has started meeting monthly with the district’s Community Engaging Director, Liz Carmody, to find more ways to grow community engagement in WCCUSD.
“Over the last six months we have had this campaign message, ‘we are the experts’,” said Healthy Richmond Program Coordinator and Communications Assistant, Katherine Rife. “Kind of getting at the idea that students, parents, community residents, are really the experts in this experience and can really make the best recommendation on how the educational system can be improved.”
Teacher Maribel Lopez attended high school in Richmond in the late 1990s said she felt she was not college and career ready once she graduated. Now that she is a teacher and a parent in the district she hopes that her students and daughter can reap the benefits of a better district.
“My daughter, I want the best for her and I always tell my parents that I want the same hopes and dreams that they want for their children,” said Lopez. “Really, it’s about having quality teachers in the classroom every single day.”
One question asked by parents and teachers asked what candidates will do to ensure all children are college and career ready.
Candidate responses include instituting professional learning communities, improving recruitment practices, implementing more after school programs, and establishing more ambitious yet attainable goals for teachers.
Full Service Community Schools (FSCS), an initiative the district is implementing that not only addresses the academic outcomes of students but also the adverse childhood experiences that impact classroom success, was also a central subject of discussion among the organizations, students, and families.
Non-profit youth organization YES asked candidates how they plan to make the initiative a reality across the district and what are some of the first steps they will take if elected.
Candidate Liz Block said she plans to first find out if the current FSCS implementation is working before moving forward. Peter Chau said he wants to implement therapeutic counseling for students, and both Ayana Kirkland Young and Otheree Christian said they want to invest in creating a team to ensure that FSCS is followed through.
Chester Stevens said although he plans to work with teachers on understanding the goals of the FSCS, he is a bit unsure about the effectiveness of the program.
“I am kind of half heartedly interested in Full Service Community schools because to me it seems like you’re going to take a child, deem that they are not doing well because of emotional problems, and put them into special schools. I am not for that, I think every classroom ought to teach holistically.”
The school board election will be held November 4th.
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